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A Strategy to Deal With Adult Temper Tantrums

How do you cope with tantrums of spouses, adult children, or siblings?

Temper tantrums are disruptive behaviors or emotional outbursts that involve physical acts or screaming. Children have temper tantrums in response to unmet needs or desires. Tantrums are especially common in young children who cannot express their needs in words or control their emotions when they are frustrated or disappointed. Many children never develop good coping skills—the tantrums continue into adulthood. Road rage, for example, is an adult temper tantrum. From the response to my posts about adult temper tantrums, it seems that this is a common problem.

Source: Ryan Franco/Unsplash
Source: Ryan Franco/Unsplash

Readers have been asking for advice about how to respond to spouses, siblings and grown children who have temper tantrums. A reader who I will call Patricia wrote: “My older sister was favored by our parents and learned as a child to hit me and scream at me to make me do her chores or carry her backpack up the hill to school. As an adult, my big sister still screams, throws things, and slams doors if I refuse to do what she wants. It's getting scary because she has gotten bigger in size and the temper tantrums are more frequent now.” Patricia wants help defending herself against her sister.

Jonathan wants help with how to deal with his girlfriend’s temper tantrums. “She starts screaming and throwing things and threatens to move out.”

And Sally came to see me because she realized her adult daughter has temper tantrums.

It is important to develop a strategy for dealing with adult temper tantrums. Here are some suggestions to help you respond to the adult temper tantrums of a loved one.

1. Stay calm. The first rule in responding to an adult temper tantrum is that you have to stay calm and not get engaged in it. You cannot reason or argue with someone while they are having a temper tantrum.

2. Assess potential danger. If the person having a tantrum is on drugs, alcohol, etc. or threatens physical violence, you have to leave the premises immediately, call 911, or both.

If the person having the tantrum is not violent to him/herself or you, then:

3. Show that you understand. Calmly say that you understand why he/she is upset. “I understand that you want me to pay for your wedding because it is so important to you and you cannot afford it;” “I understand that I was criticizing you as if you were a child and that made you very angry;” or “I understand that you want help cleaning the house and you want me to help you.”

4. Set boundaries. In a calm tone, after you have demonstrated that you understand why the other person is so frustrated, disappointed and angry, you need to set a boundary about what behavior is not acceptable. For example, “I understand that you want help cleaning the house and it’s not fair that you have to do it by yourself, but you cannot throw things and curse at me.

If the person having the tantrum continues to scream and curse at you, then:

5. Give space. A tantrum is an interactive phenomena. Announce that you are leaving and you will be happy to talk when he/she has calmed down and feels able to talk. If you leave the room, the tantrum will end more quickly because the person has not been able to engage you. If he/she follows you out of the room, you may have to leave the apartment or house.

In conclusion, adult temper tantrums are difficult to deal with. Whether you are responding to a spouse, sibling or adult child, you need to develop a strategy that sets limits and keeps you safe. Ideally, both of you want to change this destructive dynamic and you can create a strategy together. But often, the person having the tantrums is not a willing partner in the process of change. In that case, you have to develop a strategy that protects you and accept the fact that the other person will not like it.